What a jarring wake up call.
Last week, I was reading the book “No Bad Parts” by Dr. Richard Schwartz. I chose it intentionally for this holiday because it’s a week meant to focus purely on joy. There was no ancient war, no defeating our enemies, just a festival of prosperity. In fact, it’s a holiday of inclusion- in which the Temple service included 70 offerings to nourish the spiritual wellbeing of the 70 symbolic seminal nations of the world; it’s not even only about the Jewish people but about global goodness and health for humanity.
I was feeling inspired, initially, delving into the theory and practice of IFS (internal family systems). The idea (grossly simplified) is that just like in a family, we all have our roles and our parts, but loving parents would never want to banish one family member, we can view the different parts of ourselves that way too.
It’s predicated on the notion that every human is born with a core, worthy “Self” (which to me was a clear modernization of “Soul”) that’s intrinsically good and yearns to serve a purpose. Then we develop these multiple “parts” within us, in response to early formative experiences, which play roles in our lives, minds, hearts, and relationships, and they evolve to sustain our wellbeing. IFS challenges the idea that we are inherently bad and need to reign in and conquer our “badness,” but instead asserts that we’re inherently good and simply need to rescript our parts to access that inner goodness. That when we can identify, understand, and engage with our “parts,” we can allow them to develop into more adaptive versions of themselves.
These ideas were like music to my soul, because they resonate so exquisitely with much of what I’ve been taught spiritually throughout my life:
“We’re each imbued with a spark of pure Divinity within, which can’t be extinguished.”
“A human transgression is nothing but a spirit of temporary insanity.”
“The inclination within us to do wrong is really just a vehicle of goodness challenging us to grow and do even better.”
My heart so badly wanted and still wants to believe in this Universal benevolence, unity, and purpose. Exploring the hypothesis that “hurt people hurt people” is a manifestation of wounded inner children’s protective parts acting out their own distorted perceptions of what’s needed for survival.
What I saw and continue to see this week, makes me wonder if evil is really more of an entity than my soul wants to believe.
You “need” to choose violence because you believe it’s necessary?
I can understand that, even if it feels distorted.
But what has to happen to a baby, an innocent child, for it to grow up and become someone who can gang rape, torture, maim, and murder in cold blood? To laugh at the savagery and mock the pain of their obviously innocent victims.
What has to go wrong in a person’s life, how much trauma and maleducation must they endure to become such a corruption of humanity?
How do we comprehend it at both the individual and societal levels?
Do we create clinical words- sociopath? psychopath? neurological or developmental deficits obstructing empathy, guilt, a conscience?
How are there whole groups- cultures, cults- the line blurs, promoting and enabling such sadistic brutality, rewarding it, celebrating it?
How are there otherwise seemingly sane, caring global bystanders, condoning, even supporting it?
But I think it’s really true.
These terrorist savages were once precious babies, wide-eyed toddlers, innocent children. They weren’t born evil. Things happened to them. Other traumatized, propagandistly-educated adults presumably abused, broke, and brainwashed these children into teens and adults who could believe that evil is somehow Allah’s will and good for the world. THAT’s the “cycle of violence.” I don’t know who started it. I don’t know when or how it’s going to end.
But I know that moral people can’t only fight terror with love, as pretty as it sounds in theory, because that’s how they end up dead. (And as Dara Horn points out: People Love Dead Jews.) If we don’t identify the “bad parts,” and defend ourselves with effective enough force, that’s the end of us. The luxury of diplomatic negotiation is a privilege you only have when there isn’t a gun at your head or a rapist in your house.
And yet we do ultimately fight the darkness with light. As much as we need physical strength in order to survive and defend, we maintain our psychological strength through love and connection. By giving to and protecting each other, by singing and praying and crying and not allowing ourselves to become dehumanized. By continuing to practice as much compassion as possible, and by choosing not to lose faith completely in spite of the worst, to keep going even when hope seems irrational.
As a kid, I always preferred when the movies ended with the bad guy seeing the light and becoming good, rather than being driven away or killed. In real life, I prefer that too. But sadly, real life isn’t always like kids’ movies.
There are bad parts.
They didn’t start out that way.
But after a certain amount of moral atrophy, not everyone or everything is redeemable. I wish they were.
But I’ve seen otherwise. I don’t know how much we can blame the free will of individual perpetrators of such evil for what they do- surely if they were healthy, sane, reasonable, happy, this wouldn’t be possible for them. I wouldn’t judge a venomous snake for choosing to attack me, but I would defend myself to its death if the alternative were mine. Even if the snake were my own cousin, as it is today. I pray for a future where no one can relate to this.
And evil can be contagious. That's how many "civilized German citizens" could become Nazis, how many "innocent Palestinians" can become terrorists, and how many "bleeding-heart" bystanders the world over can somehow support and rationalize barbarism.
I wish there were no bad parts.
But for now, I just need desperately to look for, connect to, nourish, and strengthen the good parts- in myself, in others, in the world.
Here is another take on all this: "I believe with an imperfect faith"